A feisty challenge to the notion that females are the weaker sex.
Spurred by the evidence of her daughters’ physical confidence and self-esteem, Dowling (Red Hot Mamas, 1996, etc.) set out to examine how the perception of frailty has shaped women’s expectations and self-image. The frailty of women, she asserts, is not a reality but a myth with an agenda: it is driven by men’s wish to maintain their domination over women. The author puts the physical achievements of the present generation of young women in perspective by looking back at the restrictions hobbling women in the 19th century: as she describes them, Victorian views on female weakness (i.e., young women were forbidden to climb stairs during their menstrual periods lest they harm their reproductive organs and render themselves unfit for childbearing) seem so absurd as to be both amusing and astonishing. Less humorous is her account of how, for most of the 20th century, women were kept out of school athletics, the Olympics, and professional sports. Here she also looks at the effects of Title IX and the persistence of inequities and negative attitudes. She finds that inadequate physical education and social pressure still keep many girls and young women from discovering the power of their bodies. However, women are closing the strength gap, says Dowling, who cites biomechanical assessments of male and female athletic performance indicating that physical abilities of top-level females equal and sometimes surpass those of top-level men. Thus, when height is factored in, Florence Griffith Joyner is seen to be 5.3 percent faster than Carl Lewis, she notes. Dowling’s take-home message is that physical equality, by bringing to an end male domination, is the final stage of women’s liberation.
The assumption of men’s ill-will and bad behavior toward women will doubtless rankle many male readers, but women’s study groups should find this convincing and comforting—if not downright inspiring.